Asking mosques for support is an act of solidarity, not division
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has been criticised after it emerged that he had written to 1,100 British imams, urging them to redouble efforts to prevent young Britons being radicalised.
In his letter, Pickles stated that it is important to ‘demonstrate the true nature of British Islam’. Therefore, imams need to ‘lay out more clearly than ever before, what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country’. Further, Pickles stated that imams have an ‘important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity’.
Pickles emphasised that ‘acts of extremism are not representative of Islam’, but called on faith leaders to show what Islam does represent.
Even though Pickles stressed that he was ‘proud’ of how Muslims in Britain responded after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, he believed there was ‘more work to do’ to stamp out extremism.
This is not the first time that he has expressed his support for the Muslim population in Britain. However, it is the first time that he has directly urged imams to stand up against extremism.
Members of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have responded with objections to these letters, comparing the government to the far right. It was claimed that by writing these letters Pickles has implied that Muslim values are inherently separate from British values. Coming at a time of deepening mistrust between communities in Britain, it is evident that these letters may have the effect of fostering feelings of resentment from some Muslims, who feel that they are being unjustly blamed for the actions of minority extremists.
This is not the first time that the government has asked mosques to better engage in their role to encourage the integration of Islamic values into British society. The previous government initiated the Citizenship Education (ICE) project which sought to help young Muslims in 300 madrassas and 100 independent Muslim faith schools explore their religion.
Another project, carried out by the Young Muslims Advisory Group (YMAG), was designed to help Muslims find solutions to a range of challenges, including extremism, discrimination and civic partnership.
So why the uproar now?
We have had problems in the past in mosques that have hosted extremist preachers such as Abu Hamza taking control at Finsbury Park. With the debate now focusing on social media recruitment to terrorism, it is almost as if some people feel that mosques are doing enough already or, indeed, that all is well in all of our mosques.
But the problem has not disappeared. Last week’s Panorama, ‘After Paris – The Battle for British Islam’, highlighted the fact that hate preachers are still active in some mosques even today, where they seek to give an interpretation of Islam that creates a ‘them and us’ situation. This, according to one former prominent jihadist, is the first stage of radicalisation for foreign fighters.
As the presenter, John Ware wrote in The Independent
“The programme showed how Salafi Wahhabism is wreathed in anti-westernism, contempt for parliamentary democracy, reactionary attitudes to gender equality and gay rights, and disdain for other faiths.
“Through its UK-based adherents, this puritanical strain of Islam has taken on a life of its own here with a proliferation of Islamic teaching institutions, activist groups and Islamic satellite channels. It “takes young Muslims to the front door of violent extremists” said Sara Khan.”
Panorama paid particular attention to preachers such as Haitham al-Haddad, Murtaza Khan and Abu Usamah at-Thahabi, who are regular fixtures in mosques throughout the UK. There are others that were not mentioned, who are regularly given platforms to peddle ideas that, at best, can be described as dichotomous to British values and, at worst, a form of non-violent extremism that lays the foundations for the theological justifications of all Islamist-motivated terrorism. Some mosques and institutions have been regularly inviting people that preach exactly the kind of hate that Pickles is talking about in his letter.
To be sure, most Muslims recognise and appreciate the support from non-Muslims when anti-Muslim hatred is spouted by bigots. We have seen examples of this all over the world in initiatives like #illridewithyou. Indeed, there has been much support for combating this type of hatred – just has there has been for other types of xenophobia such as racism.
But the minute that our mosques are asked for support, the apologia brigade swings into action to complain that Muslims are being isolated or targeted to apologise for the terrorist acts of a few. Surely, they must realise that, at times like these, we need solidarity and not apologia if we are going to combat this cancer within our society?
It is only unreasonable people and institutions that wish to promote their own version of faith-based identity politics that would have an issue with this letter.
It is clear that Pickles wrote these letters to offer support and a credible strategy for mosques to deal with the problem of extremists who would wish to take advantage of their institutions. Moreover, what with the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the knock-on effect that law enforcement agencies are under increased pressure to maintain security, we must, as a community and society, ensure that more energy should be focused on undermining the ideology which extremists promote to create this division within our societies. This letter, although long overdue, is a start.
Haras Rafiq is the managing director of Quilliam. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.